NFL

NFL 2021: Time to bet against Brady? – The experts have their say

By Sports Desk September 10, 2021

If the opener is any evidence, the 2021 NFL season is set to be a rollercoaster ride.

Defending champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers emerged victorious from a frenetic encounter with the Dallas Cowboys, raising their Super Bowl LV title banner and then prevailing 31-29.

No team has won the Super Bowl in successive years since Tom Brady and the New England Patriots did so in the 2004 season. He will aim to repeat the feat having led the Bucs to glory last year, but do they deserve their status as favourites to retain the Lombardi Trophy, or will the Kansas City Chiefs or another of their potential challengers stand triumphant in Los Angeles come February?

With a jam-packed first Sunday of the campaign on the horizon, Stats Perform's panel of experts make their predictions for what promises to be a fascinating season.

Nicholas McGee: Shanahan puts his Super Bowl curse to bed

AFC Champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC Champion: San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl Champion: San Francisco 49ers
MVP: Tom Brady

San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has endured his fair share of Super Bowl heartbreak, receiving criticism after the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI when he was the offensive coordinator and in the wake of the Niners' fourth-quarter collapse against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV two seasons ago.

But the roster Shanahan has at his disposal is one primed to contend to go deep into the postseason again. Nick Bosa leads an extremely deep defensive line that has the talent to take over games while the offense is flush with playmakers. The question is when dual-threat quarterback Trey Lance, the third overall pick in the draft, will be ready to win the starting quarterback job from Jimmy Garoppolo.

With Lance adding another element to the rushing offense, a ground attack that ranked second in yards per game in 2019 has the potential to become a near-unstoppable force and lay the foundation for Shanahan to finally get his hands on the Lombardi Trophy.

In Tampa, Brady looks to be somehow getting stronger with age and, if that continues throughout the campaign and the Bucs are contending to repeat as champions, it will be difficult to look past him for MVP. With pass rushers that can overwhelm opponents and a diverse rushing attack, the 49ers have a potential formula to dictate a game against Tampa and end Brady's hopes of an eighth title.

The Browns have a strong case for the top running game in the NFL going into the season. An excellent supporting cast for Baker Mayfield and a superb offensive line means the 2018 number one overall pick has everything he needs to push Cleveland to a deep postseason run. On defense, the Browns have made astute additions at linebacker and in the secondary and boast one of the most well-rounded rosters in the league. Yet in a matchup between their head coach Kevin Stefanski and Shanahan, the nod has to go to the league's pre-eminent play-caller.

Rob Lancaster: Dak is back, and so are the Cowboys as an NFC force!

AFC Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC Champion: Dallas Cowboys
Super Bowl Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Dak Prescott

How 'bout them Cowboys! The call may be brave, but the NFC has not seen a back-to-back champion since the Seahawks in 2014 and Dallas' performance in the opener was one of a team that should not only be favourite for their NFC East division but also contend for a conference title they will see as long overdue.

The Cowboys piled up points when Dak Prescott was healthy, though they didn't equate to wins. His 403 passing yards and three touchdowns were also not enough against the Bucs, but they should serve to allay concerns over the ankle injury that ended his 2020 season or the shoulder issue that overshadowed his preseason and boost hopes he can perform at a level that helped Dallas average 509.5 net yards per game in the first four weeks of the previous campaign.

The key to Dallas realising their potential is the defense, where the Cowboys hope the presence of Dan Quinn as coordinator should help see vast improvements. The early signs were promising against Tampa Bay as a team that allowed 2,541 rushing yards last year gave up only 52 to the Buccaneers on Thursday. If they can become even an average defense this season and get the best out of Prescott, that is a recipe for a Super Bowl challenge. 

As for the Chiefs, a Super Bowl defeat is one thing, but they were embarrassed by the Bucs. The response has been to improve the offensive line, making sure Patrick Mahomes has time to work his magic. Not only will they get back to the big game, this time they will triumph, dashing Jerry Jones' dream of hosting a title parade in Texas.

Chris Myson: Never bet against Brady

AFC champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Super Bowl champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
MVP: Tom Brady

The Buccaneers took time to find their groove last season, understandably given Brady moved to a new offense after 20 years in New England as the team coped with a disrupted preseason. A roster with few obvious holes put it all together down the stretch, a feat that became more remarkable when it later emerged the ageless Brady – whose 40 passing touchdowns was the second-highest total of his remarkable career – played the whole season with a torn MCL.

After the Bucs incredibly found a way to ensure they will return all 22 starters, their head coach and both coordinators, it would be brave to bet against them at least coming close to a repeat with a fit and firing Brady showing just how comfortable he now he is in Tampa by throwing for 379 yards and four touchdowns, albeit with two interceptions, and leading a game-winning drive against the Cowboys.

The Browns, in their second year with impressive offensive mind Stefanski, continue to draft and recruit wisely under GM Andrew Berry. With star wideout Odell Beckham Jr returning from injury with a point to prove, Mayfield poised for a career year and a formidable rushing attack already in place, they will relish another shot at the Chiefs after pushing them all the way in a 22-17 Divisional Round defeat.

Ben Spratt: Watch out, Peyton – Mahomes is coming for your record!

AFC champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC champion: Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Patrick Mahomes

The Chiefs may well have been entering this season as two-time reigning champions if not for an awful Super Bowl showing from their offensive line, which allowed superstar quarterback Mahomes to be pressured 33 times by the Buccaneers.

Kansas City addressed that issue in the offseason and will hope they have now found a fix. Effective pass protection should take the Chiefs all the way and mean an outstanding regular season for Mahomes, who might even fancy a shot at Peyton Manning's single-season record of 55 touchdowns with a 17th game to play with.

That O-Line would face the ultimate test if the Rams also made the big game, however, tasked with keeping Aaron Donald away from Mahomes. It is an improvement to the Rams' own weakest element – their QB, with Matthew Stafford in for Jared Goff – that figures to bring them into contention to emerge from the NFC as they did in the 2018 season.

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  • NBA 2022-23: Can the Lakers bounce back or will LeBron regret penning new deal? NBA 2022-23: Can the Lakers bounce back or will LeBron regret penning new deal?

    It is safe to say 2021-22 was a season to forget for the Los Angeles Lakers.

    A record of 33-49 meant failure to even reach the play-in tournament, unthinkable at the start of the campaign.

    The Lakers finished 11th in the Western Conference, and only managed a measly three wins from 13 against Pacific Division opponents.

    They actually won five of their first eight games, but by the end of the season they had reached peak crisis-mode.

    Heading into their final 10 games, the Lakers knew they needed to win several to get into the playoffs, before proceeding to lose eight in a row, with two consolation victories saving a minimal amount of face.

    It was quite the failure, and yet LeBron James did not seem to think twice about signing a new two-year, $97.1million contract extension that includes a player option for 2024-25.

    Before the new season gets underway, Stats Perform has taken a look at the Lakers' prospects to try and determine if there is cause for optimism, or if James could be left to carry the load on his own once again.

    Can LeBron get Lakers out of a jam?

    The man has four NBA championships, four Finals MVPs, four NBA MVPs, 17 All-Star selections and three All-Star MVPs to his name, but this could be his biggest challenge to date.

    Basketball is clearly a team sport, but as James knows all too well, it's not unusual for one player to play so well that he can carry a team to success almost single-handedly.

    That did not happen last season, despite his best efforts, which goes to show just how poorly the rest of the team performed.

    James scored 1,695 points in just 56 games at an average of 30.3 points per game, his best regular season return since 2005-06, and only Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers averaged more (30.6).

    He also reached a notable landmark in March, becoming the first player in NBA history to record 10,000 assists and 10,000 rebounds in a career.

    Of course, one of the issues was that he only managed to play 56 games, and as James turns 38 in December, is he likely to be more involved this year?

    Even if he is, his impressive numbers last season achieved little in terms of the team's outcome, so will he get more help this time round? Perhaps, if the new coach can make an impact.

     

    Can Ham sandwich Westbrook into his team?

    The dismissal of Frank Vogel was about the most predictable thing that happened at the end of last season.

    Just as you thought the Lakers were pulling out of danger, the wheels would fall off again, which was a recurring theme throughout the campaign, with Vogel unable to maintain any consistency.

    His replacement, Darvin Ham, comes highly rated and with a quiet confidence he can step up having impressed as assistant at the Milwaukee Bucks.

    One of his first jobs will be to form a unit out of his key players, in particular finding a way to get James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook on the court together as often as possible.

    While not perfect, the Lakers did win 11 of their 21 games last season when all three featured, but had losing records when only two, one or none of them played, including defeat all five games where only Westbrook played of the three.

    Westbrook actually recorded his worst scoring season since 2009-10, failing to average over 20 points per game for the first time since then (18.5).

    His rebound and assist numbers were also well down on those he produced at the Washington Wizards in 2020-21, with average rebounds falling from 11.5 to 7.4, and assists from 11.7 to 7.1.

    He was, at least, available though, making 78 appearances, while James played 56 times, and Davis just 40.

     

    AD's lack of availability could potentially the biggest issue, as he also only managed 36 outings in 2020-21, meaning he has played less basketball in the last two years than Westbrook did last season.

    However, he is – for the time being – fit now, and after the Lakers' opening preseason encounter with the Sacramento Kings on Monday, Ham said of the trio: "They allowed themselves to help one another… we have a three-series that involves all three of them, a half-court play call, and I think they're gonna thrive."

    There have been persistent rumours the Lakers will trade Westbrook, but Ham is seemingly working towards life with the 33-year-old, also saying on Monday: "I have a plan for him. That plan included him when they gave me the job."

    Keeping them fit is one thing, albeit mostly out of Ham's hands, but if he can find a way of getting the most out of them when they are available to him, and can coax the Wizards form out of Westbrook, that could be the support James so badly needs.

    A new face and a familiar one

    The consensus was that the Lakers needed fresh blood, rather than relying on older players to rediscover their magic.

    So naturally, they brought in 34-year-old Patrick Beverley and re-signed nine-year NBA veteran Dennis Schroder.

    In fairness, there does appear to be method in the two acquisitions. Beverley was crucial for the Minnesota Timberwolves as they returned to the playoffs last season, averaging 9.2 points in his 54 games, as well as 4.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game while shooting 34.3 per cent of his three-pointers.

    Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka also pointed to his "toughness" and "competitive spirit", possibly suggesting Beverley has been signed as much to inspire his team-mates as much as what he can do with the ball in hand.

    Schroder was an interesting pick-up given the German shooting guard's struggles in the playoff exit to the Phoenix Suns in 2020-21, before leaving for the Boston Celtics.

    Overall though, he had a good record of 15.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.1 steals in 61 games that season, and rumours are that James played a key role in getting him back to LA.

    Just make the playoffs and go from there

    There are definitely things to work with for Ham, but it is also far from a simple job.

    While he was pleased with the showing from his main men against the Kings, he will have been alarmed to see the drop-off once he made changes in the second half.

    Leading by five points at half-time, the Lakers went on to lose by 30 at the Crypto.com Arena.

    They tip off with the hardest possible job of stopping Stephen Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors on October 18, but an NBA season is a marathon and not a sprint.

    The Lakers do not need to be perfect, but Ham has the regular season to find the right formula and as a minimum, reach the playoffs.

    Then just see where James can take them in the situation he has so often thrived in, assuming he gets more help this time.

  • Buccaneers hold banged-up Brady out of practice Buccaneers hold banged-up Brady out of practice

    Tom Brady did not take part in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday as the 45-year-old quarterback deals with nagging injuries to his right shoulder and finger.

    Brady acknowledged he played through some shoulder soreness during the Buccaneers' 41-31 home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday when speaking on his weekly radio show on SiriusXM. The seven-time Super Bowl champion appeared to be in a bit of discomfort after taking a hit on a second-quarter sack that resulted in a fumble the Chiefs recovered.

    "My shoulder's doing OK," Brady said on Monday’s Let's Go! broadcast. "You know, just some bumps and bruises, and I kind of took a hit there on it. Got some treatment [Monday].

    "This week will be very similar to a lot of the other ones, just getting on the mend, getting back to practice and trying to improve and be ready to go for next week."

    Brady was listed on last week's injury report with the finger issue, which is considered minor and did not prevent him from practising in full. The three-time NFL MVP threw for a season-high 385 yards and three touchdowns while completing 39 of 52 passes against Kansas City.

    NFL.com reported in September that the Buccaneers were planning on having Brady take Wednesday practices off throughout the season in an effort to reduce wear and tear on his body during his 23rd NFL campaign.

    Brady is still expected to make his 323rd career regular-season start when the Buccaneers host the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

  • Haaland hits dominant double to earn rare City rest in latest one-sided win Haaland hits dominant double to earn rare City rest in latest one-sided win

    Erling Haaland "will have a break", Pep Guardiola assured the media after his Manchester derby heroics. Just not yet, it seems.

    Concerns around the amount of football Haaland has played since signing for Manchester City are understandable.

    Heading into this week's Champions League matches, team-mate Joao Cancelo was the sole outfield player in the Premier League to play more minutes than Haaland across all competitions this season.

    Cancelo and Haaland are two of three players – the other being goalkeeper Ederson – to start every City match. Named in the line-up once more against Copenhagen on Wednesday, Haaland made his 12th start in City colours; his 12th of last season, playing at Borussia Dortmund, did not come until December.

    Indeed, Haaland had already sustained a thigh injury this time a year ago, and only returned briefly before another lay-off with a hip problem.

    Guardiola is well aware of those issues, though, describing City as "lucky" to have "incredible physios".

    "Last season, he could not play many games," the City manager said after the 6-3 win over Manchester United. "He was injured all the time."

    He added: "Dortmund couldn't do it [keep Haaland fit], and we can do it. That is fantastic for us. That is why I thank them [the medical staff]."

    And if there is no immediate risk of injury, of course Guardiola wants to keep sending his superstar striker out to put opponents to the sword.

    After two goals in the 5-0 defeat of Copenhagen, Haaland has 19 in those 12 matches. Riyad Mahrez (24) was the only City player to score more in all competitions in the entirety of last season.

    City already possessed the best team in England, blessed with a vast array of supreme talents, but Haaland is now the undoubted star of the show.

    Ahead of kick-off on Wednesday, his goals in the warm-up were cheered louder than any other player's, as was his name as the line-ups were announced.

    It was with some inevitability then that Haaland's first touch following kick-off was the opener, steered past Kamil Grabara, who wisely didn't bother to move.

    "Who else?" asked the Etihad Stadium's public announcer, as if the role of confirming the goalscorer was even needed.

    Haaland spoke last month of his "dream" to score five goals from just five touches – an ambition that does not tally with Guardiola's outlook on the game, as he replied on Sunday: "I don't like that. I want him involved. He can touch the ball many more times."

    But Haaland remained as efficient as ever, his second touch a pass to the outstanding Jack Grealish, who in turn found Bernardo Silva for a shot that struck the post.

    That was one of only three passes Haaland made in the first half, yet he was involved in everything, attempting four shots.

    Perhaps the loudest roar of the night from the Copenhagen fans followed a tackle that robbed Haaland of the ball on halfway. It provided only momentary cheer, though, as the City number nine tapped in a simple second soon enough.

    The only way the overmatched visitors could prevent Haaland scoring yet another hat-trick was by themselves prodding beyond Grabara – Davit Khocholava turning in an own goal for the third with Haaland waiting right behind him.

    If Guardiola had no sympathy for Copenhagen when he removed Haaland at the break – assuming his words had not cursed the forward with an injury – perhaps he was thinking of poor Julian Alvarez.

    The Argentina international's second City start had been overshadowed by Haaland just as his first had, when Alvarez scored two against Nottingham Forest but his team-mate netted three.

    There were glimpses of a partnership forming as Haaland's pressing led to a chance from which Alvarez could not get a shot away, but in 235 minutes on the pitch together across seven matches, they have traded just four passes and are yet to combine for a goal – Haaland creating a single chance for Alvarez.

    Alvarez is much more like the type of forward City fans have been used to watching under Guardiola – diminutive and busy, but not as clinical as Haaland. Admittedly, few, if any, are.

    A second-half penalty was dispatched by Mahrez, with Alvarez watching on when Haaland surely would have snatched the ball for his hat-trick, while the former River Plate man later became the second City player to hit the post from a Grealish pass.

    Finally, after another wonderful Grealish run and then a cutback from Mahrez, Alvarez converted the fifth when he simply could not miss in front of an open goal – reward at the end of a slightly frustrating night, if such a thing exists in a 5-0 victory.

    Regardless, unless Haaland's injury woes are gone for good, Alvarez will get further chances in the coming months.

    But for now, fear for Southampton, who face Haaland on Saturday coming off a 45-minute rest – his longest of the season.

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